In the dark about the heavens

William Vollmann

Arthur Koestler called Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres “the book that nobody read”. Owen Gingerich wrote a book about it (The Book Nobody Read) and decided that of course some people read it, otherwise it wouldn’t have had the impact it had. I have been lately browsing William Vollmann’s (above) book on Copernicus (Uncentering the Earth), and it is a valiant attempt at summarising the contents of Copernicus’ book, while somehow also managing to be humorous and conversational. Vollmann shows that Copernicus’ writing can be exasperatingly dense, but is keen to point out how revolutionary the book was in creating an “uncentered universe of canted detritus”, even if sometimes Copernicus was wildly wrong, and even if sometimes he was almost spot on only through sheer luck.

Vollmann also doesn’t presume that the Church had a one-dimensional attitude to these things. Early on, church figures showed some interest in these speculations, even if later their opinions and control hardened. Opposition was particularly strong, though, in Protestant circles, from figures such as Martin Luther, with their new-found belief in the primacy of scriptural revelation, and this should be a salient reminder that not all of Luther’s opinions can be counted on as universally valid and relevant.

One is also reminded of how primitive the prevailing worldview was, and how much in the dark people like Copernicus were regarding the heavens, in spite of the fact that recently historians have been rightly trying to show that medieval peoples weren’t quite so ignorant and different from us as is usually assumed.

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